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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 8.0° F  Fair
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Sexual orientation a non-issue in Mark Pocan's historic congressional victory
Pocan: 'At the end of the day we have one job, and that is to actually get something done.'
Credit:Phil Ejercito

Democrat Mark Pocan's victory over Republican rival Chad Lee was hardly unexpected, but it is remarkable in one way. Pocan succeeds Tammy Baldwin, and his win marks the first time a congressional seat has changed hands from one openly gay lawmaker to another.

"The 2nd Congressional District of Wisconsin is making history with Mark Pocan's election to Congress," confirms Paul Guequierre, spokesperson for Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group.

Guequierre notes that Baldwin, who gave up her 2nd Congressional seat to run against former Gov. Tommy Thompson for U.S. Senate, was in 1998 the first openly gay non-incumbent to be elected to Congress.

Pocan's victory, says Guequierre, "shows that the people of the 2nd Congressional District of Wisconsin are really not terribly concerned about the sexual orientation of their leaders. They're just looking for someone who can do the job."

Baldwin made history Nov. 6 too, as the first openly gay candidate, and first Wisconsin woman, to win election to the U.S. Senate.

Remarkably, in both races, neither Pocan's nor Baldwin's sexual orientation became an issue in any substantive way. This was all the more striking in Baldwin's statewide race in a state that as recently as 2006 had voted decisively to ban same-sex marriage in the Wisconsin Constitution.

Ald. Mark Clear, who was at Monona Terrace Tuesday night celebrating the Democratic victories of Pocan, Baldwin and President Barack Obama, said Baldwin's victory showed that Wisconsin "has grown up about whether being gay is an issue. It was a total non-issue in the race. Even with all the nasty Karl Rove [ads], they never brought it up.

"It makes you wonder," Clear added, "if we voted on the marriage amendment now, whether it would be different this time."

Tuesday night, in fact, was a big night for marriage equality across the nation: Maine, Maryland and Washington approved gay marriage, while an attempt to ban it in Minnesota's state constitution failed.

When Pocan gave his victory speech Tuesday night, he thanked his family, including his husband, Phil Frank, whom he kissed on the podium.

"Phil has always been there for me even when the GOP went a little out of bounds recently," said Pocan. "He has always been a rock, and I want to thank him for that."

Pocan's statement referenced a bizarre episode in the last few weeks of the campaign. A gay worker with the Chad Lee campaign said he was attacked in his home and sent threatening, lurid text messages from Frank. Kyle Wood told conservative media outlets he was being attacked because of his politics and sexuality. He eventually recanted and was fired from the Lee campaign, which said it had nothing to do with Wood's actions.

In his speech, Pocan emphasized the deep progressive roots of the 2nd Congressional District. "This is the district of Fighting Bob La Follette. This is the seat of Bob Kastenmeier. And this is the seat of Tammy Baldwin.

"This is the seat where we expect our representatives to work hard for progressive values and the middle class and lower-income families of Wisconsin, and I will do that."

Pocan acknowledged the gridlock and dysfunction that have consumed Congress the last two years. "At the end of the day we have one job, and that is to actually get something done. It doesn't mean you have to compromise your values. But you do need to find compromise. I have done that for my 14 years in the Legislature, and I will do that in Washington with this district."

In an interview Tuesday, Pocan said he would start six days of orientation in Washington, D.C., next week. He hasn't figured out yet what he will do with his sign shop, located in Madison, but is thinking about buying a one-bedroom condo in the nation's capital where he would stay when Congress is in session.

He said it might be more cost-effective to purchase an apartment than to rent, and he is not inclined to double up with others: "I haven't had a roommate since college." He is also not tempted to follow the lead of some tea party freshmen lawmakers who, in 2010, vowed to camp out in their offices in a show of frugality. "I will not sleep in my office," Pocan said.

He said next week he will also begin the work of hiring staff and lobbying for committee assignments. "This campaign will finish and a new campaign will begin."

Pocan said he has thought about ways to address the gridlock in Congress. "I want to have a Republican friend. Someone to get to know. It's important to be able to do that."

Pocan and state Rep. Robin Vos, a conservative Republican, have always touted their friendship as one example of bipartisan fraternity in the state's increasingly fractious statehouse.

He noted that Wisconsin "has now sent more openly gay or lesbian members to Congress than any other state in the union, starting with Steve Gunderson, Tammy and then myself.

"Given that we're often considered fly-over country, it's nice to know that here in the heartland we really embrace equality in a way that's not just lip service. It actually helps elect people."

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